It Takes a Village to Raise a Forest Ruckus

New Mexican town tussles - and compromises - with environmentalists over wood-cutting practices

An Indian summer sun beats down on Max Cordova's adobe New Mexico home like a relentless hammer. Waves of heat shimmer beneath a cloudless sky. Yet despite recent record-breaking temperatures and fearsome drought, Mr. Cordova wonders how some of his neighbors in the mountain village of Truchas will stay warm this January.

"It's hot here in the summer, but our winters are long and cold," explains Cordova, a weaver who sells colorful rugs in a gallery attached to his house. "The average home here uses between six and nine cords of wood each year for cooking and heating."

Nestled in the Sangre de Cristo range at an elevation of 8,000 feet, Truchas is one of several New Mexico hamlets created under land grants more than three centuries ago, during the state's 280-year tenure as a colony of Spain.

Under terms of the village's 1754 grant, now administered by Cordova, most agricultural land is shared in common by Truchas residents. They are a hardy lot, whose incomes often fall below the poverty line.

"We still speak the Spanish of Cervantes," notes Cordova, whose ancestors have lived in and around Truchas for eight generations. "Traditionally, the people of Truchas have been self-sufficient. We've always gathered the wood we needed from the nearby forest, which I'm sad to say is now mostly outside the land grant's boundaries."

A tug-of-war over the forests

The US Forest Service usurped many land grant claims early this century when it took controls of most of the timber in northern New Mexico. As a result, villagers in Truchas and nearby communities find themselves in a tug-of-war between the US government, federal courts, and environmentalists over management of the forest.

"The lands used to belong to our people," Cordova says. "Now they belong to everybody. Yet the rest of America doesn't seem to realize that we depend on these forests for our survival."

The age-old practice of firewood gathering was disrupted last year after environmental activists won a lawsuit against the Forest Service, charging the agency with allowing residents and logging companies to disturb the habitat of the Mexican spotted owl, an endangered species. A court injunction has imposed strict new logging and firewood-gathering guidelines.

"We are forcing the Forest Service to develop a sustainable fuel wood management plan," says Sam Hitt, director of Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians, a plaintiff in the suit. "Decades of planning have not produced one."

Among other things, Mr. Hitt charges the Forest Service with letting village residents gather firewood indiscriminately. The result, he says, is disruption of potential Mexican spotted owl nesting sites. The notoriously shy birds need tall dead trees and solitude in order to reproduce. Decades of logging and fuel wood cutting have left relatively few places that meet this criteria.

"Mountain homes that take many cords of wood to heat have devastated some of these areas," declares Hitt. "The national forests will not be able to continue providing the 30 million board feet or more that it now takes to heat these villages - a figure that's over twice the commercial logging rate for the whole state of New Mexico in 1995."

Fragile compromise reached

A tense confrontation arose between Truchas residents and environmentalists last winter after court-mandated restrictions were imposed.

Hitt and another plaintiff in the fuel wood suit were hung in effigy, several other environmentalists received death threats, and angry villagers rallied at the state capitol.

Last spring, when the situation looked bleak, a fragile compromise was reached by a negotiation team that included an expert on mental health, an Hispanic Buddhist, and US Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico. Employees of the Forest Service met separately with villagers and environmentalists.

Negotiators come up with a compromise plan whereby small, green trees are being cut selectively in areas where fire suppression has created an unhealthy, overcrowded ecosystem. All parties agree that, if carried out properly, the tree-cutting will preserve owl habitat, improve the forest's health, reduce fire danger, and give residents enough fuel to meet their heating and cooking needs -- for a while.

"We're doing whatever we can to meet the needs of the people of Truchas," says Gary Schiff, spokesman for the Carson National Forest. "Our district allocated almost 5,000 cords of green wood this summer, in addition to the 15,000-to-20,000 cords of 'dead-and-down' wood we ordinarily provide."

Permits for 768 cords of green permits were issued this summer to Truchas-area woodcutters that Cordova says is still not enough to meet demand.

Mr. Schiff disputes claims by Hitt and Cordova that his agency did not provide enough permits to meet local needs last year either. He also denies Hitt's contention that the Forest Service deliberately blamed environmentalists for spot shortages of firewood last winter -- shortfalls that Hitt partially made up for by buying wood out of his own pocket.

"The court injunction has made it harder for people to get firewood," Schiff says. "We issued permits for such wood, but the plaintiffs insisted on some restrictions. Woodcutters, especially around Truchas, had to go to specified areas which were farther away than they're used to and they weren't allowed to cut most standing dead trees."

Schiff claims his agency has yet to visually locate a Mexican spotted owl in the Carson National Forest and has spent more than $2 million trying: "I think a lot of local folks are concerned about that."

It's an open question whether Mexican spotted owls actually live in the area, but there is widespread agreement that villagers must be weaned from firewood eventually. Shortages near Truchas predate the current crisis, in part because the dominant trees in the area don't generate much dead-and-down wood.

Since natural gas is unavailable and other fuels are too expensive for most residents, there is no easy alternative to firewood. Even Representative Richardson, a globe-trotting peacemaker, is stymied.

"We have to make these small communities more self-sufficient," Richardson says. "But you can't promise a federal dollar any more. Change has to come through self-reliance."

A call for government help

Back in Truchas, Cordova challenges the congressman's dismissive attitude toward government aid.

"We don't mind our area being designated critical Mexican spotted owl habitat, but the consequences of doing that must be addressed," says Cordova.

"If we don't have access to the forest, our culture and our livelihood will be endangered. More than likely we'll have to go into the cities, live in the poorest neighborhoods, and rely on social programs in order to exist. The government would have to help us in a different way."

Cordova is nevertheless encouraged by the outcome of recent peace talks, but he still worries about the future as he watches some of his neighbors forego Forest Service permits and cut down trees illegally.

"The demand for firewood was greater last year because our local economy was worse," recalls Cordova. "Fortunately we had an extremely mild winter. Somebody was looking over our shoulder. I'm not sure if we can count on that happening again this season."

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